Teenagers can offer refreshing and illuminating perspectives on the world—especially when it is going to shit thanks to the mistakes of older generations. Unfortunately, young people and their ideas are usually ignored. Earlier this year, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City tried to change that. They asked American high school students to submit photographs illustrating their perspectives on the state of the country. The resulting exhibition, 2017 America, includes at least one piece from every entrant. There are 2,000 photographs by students from 30 states on view at the SVA Gramercy Gallery through December 2.
Via email, Stephen Frailey, curator of the show and Chair of the BFA Photo and Video Department, explained to me that the exhibition seeks “to amplify the voices of the newest members of the visual arts community, 2017 America showcases a wide range of perspectives, from works that are overtly political and issue-oriented to those that express a more personal position.” The broad narrative of the exhibition is both angry and optimistic, capturing the spirit of our tumultuous times in a dazzling display of young voices.
Here's more of what Frailey had to say about these diverse and revelatory photos taken by young people.
VICE: Why was this open call directed at high school students?
Stephen Frailey: I’ve been spending time visiting high schools these past two years, and I wanted to offer the students a bridge from what might feel like an isolated experience to them, and express that there is a community that supports their endeavors and would like to engage them in a conversation through their work. And I was also quite curious about how they are responding to and surviving this toxic moment in American life.
What were some trends you saw in the submissions?
The theme prompted much usage of the American flag, of course. Simple freedom of speech and identity was immediately apparent. I was intrigued by the amount of writing and language on the body. I wonder if it corresponds to the ubiquity of tattooing. The body seems to have turned from a sexualized space to a politicized one, and there is much self-portraiture. Gender fluidity is a given.
Do you feel like the tone of the exhibition is hopeful?
There is a palpable sense of apprehension in the work as a whole, although there is a lot of work that also depicts ordinary moments of daily life and its pleasure and joy. There seems to be a clear sense of this as a watershed moment in American life.
Do you feel like you have a better understanding of how young people use photography to engage with politicized topics?
I think there is some remarkable work, full of curiosity and confidence and visual acuity. I am impressed at how some of the students are able to braid complex social and political observations into their own lives—the politics of the personal. But I think that the sense of rage that often accompanies high school life now has a much more narrow focus.
Do you feel like the pervasiveness of imagery in social media has hindered or helped this expression?
The impulse to pictorialize daily life—to obsessively frame and then share observations that social media encourages—has created a monumental escalation in the awareness of visual communication per se. It has also, perhaps, authorized more young people to more quickly realize visual skill and an affinity for photography.
Do you see a big difference in this open call versus what you see at the college level?
There is a strong relationship between the high school work and the freshman [year] work in its sense of experimentation, inquiry, and skill. From the freshman year onwards, the students will investigate themes and instincts with more depth.
Do you think that the younger generation is still excited to pursue photography as a medium, despite its ubiquity in our society?
I suspect that, with the awareness of the staggering multitude of images being generated every moment, that there is an equal recognition of the challenge of originality—the difficulty of finding one’s own voice amongst the babble of information and the seeming impulse to document everything.
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